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Getting all-too-close to God


Church bells don’t ring at odd hours.  That’s the first thing that occurred to me in Florence.  As I exited a bookstore next to the Duomo, I didn’t expect the scene that greeted me in the square outside.  It was as if the world itself had stopped turning.  The bells continued to ring, retaining their status as the only symbol contradicting my senses, that time did still press forward.  The scene was surreal.  There were 100 people at least with countenances hypnotized skyward, all fearing what we knew to be the truth.  E Morto Il Papa the newspapers read, the Catholic church had lost its leader.  84 years on this Earth and yet we all felt it was cut short.  And so closed another chapter.

I never intended to go to Rome while in Italy.  There wasn’t much of a choice anymore.  Much of the world’s press lent their attention to the week before the funeral and of course the funeral itself.  But little, if any was given to the aftermath of John Paul’s burial. 

It was one day after the funeral as I stepped through the gates to Vatican City.  Finding shelter from the rain, my eyes were met with a staggering site.  Thousands and thousands of empty chairs littered the square.  Each one, just a few hours before, contained an individual’s tribute and respect.  Together the mourners were there, themselves weaving a tapestry of good will and harmony from all four corners of the globe.  I was told by one of the Vatican officials that he saw the Israeli president sitting next to the Iranian president, as well as the Syrian president.  Sworn enemies greeted each other, shook hands and spoke the other’s native tongue.  I felt that even after his death, John Paul II was still acting as a bridge for humanity.  He was bringing those together who have hated each other for years, still fostering good will.  His soul’s love was continuing its work one week after his body died.

Thousands of mourners came together the day after the funeral.  The thick clouds and heavy drizzle reflected the somber tone of those waiting in line for the first mass of mourning after the funeral.  Not only were we mourning the loss of Christendom’s most traveled and recognizable personality, but the heavens seemed to be joining us in our sorrow. 

The grand majesty of St. Peter’s was overwhelming.  However we all felt loss.  There was a surrounding emptiness at the Vatican.  The cardinals presiding over the service were without their most powerful symbol, but nonetheless, the need for progression outweighed the death of a leader. 

I’ve never felt closer to the gates of heaven than I did under Michelangelo’s dome of St. Peter’s Basilica.  Perhaps this is mourning in the way God intended.  Thousands of us standing in the world’s most beautiful monument to God, celebrating Christianity’s most recent leader was fitting.  His entire life of achievements fresh in our memories stretched out before all of those there.  And it was felt.  John Paul’s person, his deeds and the reminder of our recent loss brought tears to the eyes of many there.  It was clear that even though the funeral was over, the mourning had truly just begun.

Stepping out from St. Peter’s and onto the square, I started to notice those around me.  Many were gazing upwards towards the pope’s old apartment window.  The shades were drawn, distinguishing it from the others.  Two weeks previous on Easter Sunday, he had appeared at the window sending out a blessing to those beneath, showing that he was still in charge of the church.  The day after the funeral, sadness prompted me to look skyward, towards his apartment.  I don’t know why, but I think I was silently wishing to obtain a glimpse of that reassuring sign given just days before.  As I did, if only for a second, the clouds parted and the glistening sun peered through, reminding me and those who caught it of a poignant reality.  The sun is always shining, whether we see it or not. 

I took this as my queue.  I left the Vatican with an uplifted heart having paid my respects and reassured that not only will life go on, but it will continue to be guided as well.

Time is the tool which we use to study a life.  Using time, we can study the accomplishments and achievements an individual has brought to this earth.  I felt the fullness of 84 powerful years closing as I walked about the grounds of Vatican City.  I felt Karol Wotyja’s deeds all honored by the love and tribute on all those who paid their respects at the funeral, and will continue for the next 9 official days of mourning.  What better way to honor “The People’s Pope” life than with millions of people taking with them his love in their hearts to share with those they meet in their everyday lives?  The Pope’s generosity of spirit remains unshakable.

Giovanni Paulo II has stepped out of time and into heavenly eternity.  Apparent on the faces of those around me, the deeds and love that he shared with millions around the world will be forever locked in earthly eternity as well. 

May the wisdom guiding the white smoke lead us in the same direction.  Amen.

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